Japanese Leicas

Leica-like Leotax, Nicca & Yashica Copies

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Contents

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About

This Page
My Approach

Japanese Leica Copies - a Potted History

Like a Leica
The Leica and What Makes a Camera a “Leica Copy”
The Japanese Copy Makers

The Comparison

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The Leica's Place
The Japanese Competition

About

This Page

This page is the entry point to the featured Japanese Leica copies on my site. In chronological birth order, they are the Leotax, Nippon/Nicca and Yashica models and although that is not the order in which the site developed, that is the order I have now adopted. This page is not essential reading to look up information on any of the other pages but for anyone interested, the first part helps understand where the information comes from and whether it is likely to be reliable. The main part seeks to put the Leica copies genre into context and provides a historical overview of how it arrived and developed in Japan. Finally, there is a comparison between Leica and the copies and their respective places in the world. It's not a camera test or feature by feature assessment but more of a philosophical overview of both historical reality and general perceptions.

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My Approach

Originally, this part of my site developed from an expansion of the Yashica YE & YF section of my Yashica the Company - Success & Failure page. It has since matured into full stories about the the YE and YF models, Nicca and Leotax, each on their own pages. Nicca because it became part of Yashica history and contributed to its SLR development. Leotax because it was Nicca's main competitor in their market segment (Canon also started there but innovated and moved to the more premium end) and there was the Leotax Leonon-S lens which was also badged as the obscure Yashica Yashikor f/2 5 cm. Plus, I felt that I needed to tell the World that the Leotax Merit is actually called the Leotax “Merite”. Most of all, because I like screw mount Leicas and Leica copies at least as much as TLRs.

In researching these cameras for my own interest, I found the same types of errors and misconceptions as I did with Yashica TLRs, except that their history has been even less well documented. In order to make a difference rather than just create another website about particular models, I have tried to cover the history of the companies to the extent that it is possible and to provide as much detail about the cameras as I can to assist anyone looking for some small detail. Not everything will be of interest to everyone but if you are looking for some piece of esoteric information, hopefully, you will find it.

I have read the other websites with relevant information, e.g. Camera-wiki.org and archived pages from the Ian Norris “Leica Copies” site, now defunct, and whilst being informed by them and noting that some of them, including Norris, quote the Hans P. Rajner, HPR, “Leica Copies” book, I have tried to develop my own interpretation based on my observations and research, e.g. every site I have looked at has made a meal of flash synchronisation. I have however used parts of low resolution versions of photos from Massimo Bertacchi's “Innovative Cameras” site to illustrate features of some early cameras, principally on the Leotax page, images that are just not available elsewhere (some of them appear on other sites). Where used, I have acknowledged his site as the source. His site is well worth looking at, for the photos especially, but keep in mind, some of the information is, in my view, suspect.

I have used many photos acknowledged as “Detail from larger web images”. These are always low resolution, cropped, sometimes drastically, images from completed auctions in most cases from Japan. That's where most of the cameras are and there is an obvious language barrier.

I am not an avid collector but when I decided to write about these cameras, I acquired several examples of each to give me a feel for at least the mainstream, more recent versions and these are featured on the site.

My main tools, as always, are my databases, mainly in the form of spreadsheets tabulating serial numbers of many hundreds of cameras of each of the three makes and all sorts of trim and specification variables. I have not used anyone else's documented serial numbers or ranges from websites nor any of the reference sources. They are serial numbers that I have seen on a camera, obviously mainly in photos. Serial numbers of my and contributors' cameras are displayed in full as are the numbers of publicly displayed rare early cameras, mainly the Leotax examples displayed on Massimo Bertacchi's site, but also in a number of Japanese magazine Camera Collectors' News editions. The rest are all those that I have found, mainly on Japanese auction sites, and are displayed with at least the last digit shown as “x” to preserve anonymity. Photos can have up to the last three digits obscured.

I have also tried to find as many ads, brochures, user manuals and related documents as possible, some acquired, some downloaded and some provided by contributors. Some of these are featured on the site.

Each of the three pages follows a slightly different format. Some of it is due to my thinking of other ways to present the information but mostly, it is due to the different source material available and the different characters of the companies.

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Japanese Leica Copies - a Potted History

Like a Leica

The screw mount Leica is often claimed to be the most copied camera in the world, although I suspect that the Rolleiflex/Rolleicord duo from the TLR world may give it a run for its money. However, there is no doubting its iconic status and game changing concept and design. Whilst it wasn't the first 35 mm stills camera, nor the first to use the 24x36 mm format, it was the first commercially successful one. The design was revolutionary and it created 35 mm photography as we know it, remaining a leader until usurped by its re-imagined offspring, the Leica M3 in 1954. There are aspects of its design that continued into the 35 mm SLR era and are still influencing how a camera should be laid out in the digital age.

First production Leica camera, Leica I (model A), from an early ad:

Apart from the non-interchangeable lens and lack of rangefinder, it was much like the following Leica screw mount models and copies.

Whilst the 1934 Soviet FED is undeniably the earliest mass produced “true” Leica copy and is almost a carbon copy of a Leica II (obviously, not in terms of quality), technically, its slightly different spec lens mount pushes the definition boundaries, more below. There were also a couple of obscure predecessors from 1933 connected to the same project. 1938 FED 1b (by this time, the viewfinder window frame had lost its Leica notch):

The FED was an “illegal” copy in that it ignored international patent laws but as we shall see, except for the Japanese War-time Nippon (Nicca ancestor), that cannot be really said for subsequent copies, although some may argue that the Kardon developed for the US military during World War II was also an “illegal” copy. Until the end of the War, it is probably fair to say that it was the policies of governments and the passion of the camera makers that drove copy making rather than commercial greed, after the War, all the legal barriers were removed but I see no scarcity of passion in any of the models that resulted.

Following the Soviets came the first Japanese makers and post-War, with the USA and Allies claiming German patents as War reparations, they were joined by cameras from the USA (civilian version of the Kardon), UK, Italy and later China (the sometimes included French Foca used a different lens mount, was innovative in its own right and was more inspired by than a copy). Some of these were very well made but it has to be remembered that by the time the later and better copies of the screw mount Leica began arriving, Leica itself was moving to the superior M3.

Screw mount Leicas are often called “Barnack Leicas” after the designer. Some would argue that strictly speaking, Barnack Leicas ended with the IIIb, the designer himself dying in 1936 (his last involvement was with the IIIa), and that the 1940 die cast IIIc didn't fit Barnack's mould. The IIIc didn't move far from the original, except for the new stronger body and one piece top plate design, but the strongest objection to calling it a “Barnack” seems to be the couple of mm increase in size, the designer having been fanatically intent on maintaining the camera's petite dimensions. I'm sympathetic but that nuance is for others to debate. However, whilst inconsequential to many, I am reasonably certain that Barnack would have been completely disapproving of the further size and weight increases of the Japanese die cast copies regardless of who made them so it would be a travesty to refer to them as “Barnacks”. I suspect that he would have felt the same way about the Leica IIIg, itself also larger than its forebearers.

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The Leica and What Makes a Camera a “Leica Copy”

So, what is a Leica copy? Leica copies generally follow the design parameters of the German Leica camera designed by Oskar Barnack in 1913 and launched by Ernst Leitz in 1925. A basic criterion is the use of 35 mm film using 24x36 mm negative frame sizes (Nikon, not a Leica copy, and Minolta both started with an “ideal” 3x4 format of 24x32 mm, moved to 24x34 mm but finally succumbed to the Leica standard 24x36 mm to match automatic slide film cutting machines in use in the USA). The first production Leica, model A, did not have an interchangeable lens so Leica copies are usually compared to the model C, now both usually called the Leica I with the alphabetic name in brackets), released in 1930. That introduced the use of the 39 mm Leica Thread Mount (LTM) with a Whitworth thread pitch (used on microscopes of which Leitz was a maker) of 26 turns per inch and a 28.8 mm lens flange to film distance (nominal, not exactly that until 1931). The shutter must be focal plane - most examples copied the Leica cloth type fairly closely, although the 1959 Canon P introduced metal curtains.

Note: Whilst Leica Screw Mount (LSM) and L39 are acceptable alternative descriptions of LTM, the commonly used M39 is not. The “M” stands for metric and M39 uses a thread pitch of 1 mm (LTM is approximately 0.977 mm). M39 mounts are commonly found on Soviet Leica copies and with a different flange to film distance, on early Soviet Zenit SLRs. It is claimed that the Soviets didn't initially realise that Leitz had used a Whitworth thread instead of metric. My Soviet f/2 Jupiter mounts easily on my Leica IIIc but pre and post-War f/3.5 FEDs bind, and would cause damage if forced. They have less of a problem on my Japanese bodies - the tolerances are probably greater. It is also claimed that the rangefinder camera mounts changed to the LTM standard in the “1950s”, presumably before my Jupiter was made.

By the way, Leica naming conventions are a little esoteric. Pre-War, the European and US markets used different naming conventions, e.g. the German Leica II is the US Leica model D and the IIIa is the Leica model G, the last model using the dual names (O.K., the IIIb seems to have also been called the model G usually followed by “-1938”). According to the Leica historian and author Gianni Rogliatti, the alphabetic model names were actually the names used within the Wetzlar factory. Why the numeric names were used for European models is not known. These days, the European convention is mainly used. Leica I, II and III can indicate relative ages of cameras if talking about the most fully featured models available at the time, but they also indicate feature sets. Simplistically, “I” models don't feature rangefinders, e.g. the early Leica I but neither does the last type Ig released in 1957 (companion to the IIIg). “II” models do have rangefinders but no slow speeds, e.g. the 1932 Leica II and the IIf post-War companion to the IIIf. Confusingly, the Leica IIIa and IIIb are stamped body types with rangefinder, slow speeds and a top speed of 1/1000 and a IIIc is a die cast body with the same specs. Whilst a very significant construction improvement, Leitz didn't consider it a capability/operational change worthy of a major name change.

Why do Leicas have three windows and two eyepieces? Briefly, it has to do with rangefinder design of 1930s, the fact that it was a “bolt-on” addition to an existing body with largely fixed positioning of components and controls and Barnack's desire to keep everything within the size envelope of the original which was designed to fit into a coat pocket (when coats in Germany were coats). Combining a rangefinder with a small viewfinder window would have been a big ask. But there was an advantage too. Initially, the rangefinder magnification was 1x. Larger viewfinders often have a magnification of less than 1x. Leaving out a discussion about viewfinder accuracy involving the base length, the slight magnification, in relative terms, probably made accurate focusing easier for the user. The Leica III increased the magnification to 1.5x which was a noticeable improvement and a significant focusing advantage over most combined types with a single eyepiece, unless they have a much longer base length as in the Contax models (and hence Nikon too).

The inclusion of a coupled rangefinder is not mandatory for a Leica copy. As we have seen, some Leica models don't feature them, however most Leica copies end up looking like a typical screw mount Leica with rangefinder, either the earlier slightly smaller stamped and assembled body type (except for some early Leica II based Leotax and Chiyoca models, Japanese examples were typically Leica III based with slow speed escapement and separate front mounted slow speed shutter dial), or the later slightly larger (2 mm wider, 2 mm taller depending on reference) but stronger die cast type introduced by the 1940 Leica IIIc. Early body Leica III/a/b type left (the IIIa added 1/1,000, the IIIb moved the viewfinder eyepieces close together, not usually found in Japanese early body types), late body Leica IIIc/f type right (IIIc shown, the 1950 IIIf added flash sync with a manual flash delay setting dial under the high speed shutter dial but Japanese copies typically offered a simpler auto-switching X/FP sync, although the switching on the first die cast Leotax models, F, T and K, was manual):

(Left detail from larger web image. Note, probably not exactly to scale)

Like its Nippon ancestor, early body Nicca Type-III S still mirrors its 19 year older Leica III inspiration closely with the exception of the added flash sync:

Below is the Leica IIIc inspiration with its close die cast body copies, the Nicca 3-F and Leotax K (the Leotax K is related to the Leotax F as the Leica IIc is to the IIIc, i.e. they are basically the same camera but without slow speeds):

The Leica is (width x height) 135 x 69 mm, the Nicca 139 x 71 mm and the Leotax 140 x 72 mm. Note, no Leotax model offered dioptre adjustment (the lever under the IIIc rewind knob) and the only die cast Nicca models to do so are the Type-5 and 5-L.

The Minolta 35 and some later variations were less clearly related. The later variations borrowed elements of design from the Leica M3, most commonly the improved viewfinder and the associated “bulking up”, with lever wind film advance and/or improved film loading often already appearing on earlier more Leica-like bodies. However, these still at heart remained Leica screw mount copies even if their Barnack link was mainly limited to the frame size, lens mount and shutter. Whilst the designers of the newer generation of Leica copies were aiming at improvements to bring them into line with modern expectations, the size and appearance of these cameras often owed more to practical and economic choices than to Barnack's philosophies of design and compactness.

As an aside, in 1937, future Yashica lens maker, and eventually acquisition, Tomioka (perhaps in association with Sankyō Kōgaku - Camera-wiki.org), produced several prototypes (Lausar and Baika) of what looked like a rangefinderless Leica copy complete with 5 cm Leitz Elmar-like collapsible lens but it wouldn't qualify for the purist definition because it used 127 format roll film (the 35 mm type re-wind knob was in fact a dummy for appearance sake).

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The Japanese Copy Makers

The first Japanese 35 mm camera and sort of Leica copy was the Seiki Kōgaku (Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory) made “Kwanon” which appeared as a prototype in 1934 and was released as the “Hansa Canon” in 1936 with lens and optical system designed and made by the Imperial Japanese Navy sponsored Nippon Kōgaku, the future Nikon Corporation. “Hansa”, dropped from subsequent models, was a trademarked brand name used by the camera's distributor, Omiya Shashin Yohin Co., Ltd. (meaning Omiya Photo Supply). Both the camera maker and distributor had key roles in the birth of Nicca. Seiki Kōgaku became “Canon Camera” in 1947. The earlier models sought to be different from Leica because of patent concerns and it wasn't until after the War that Canon initially more or less met Leica specs for what is considered a true Leica copy, particularly in regards to mount. By then, pre-War German patents had effectively been extinguished.

The next was the 1940 Leotax made by Shōwa Kōgaku. It looked more like a Leica but to avoid patent issues, the rangefinder was not initially coupled and it and the following iterations used viewfinders and rangefinders with odd window arrangements and mechanisms until after the War. Leotax Original and typical example of first three Special models:

(Left image, Ryosuke Mori & KCM Library, right image Camera Collectors' News December 1978)

Whilst Shōwa Kōgaku also sourced its standard lenses from Fujita (the Letana Anastigmat fitted during the War), Konishiroku (the later Konica) and Fuji Photo Film, its main supplier of lenses was Tōkyō Kōgaku (translated as Tokyo Optical Company), maker of the later Topcon SLR and War-time supplier of optical products to the Imperial Japanese Army.

Approaching the War in the Pacific, quality German cameras became difficult to obtain and in 1941, the company that became Nicca, Kōgaku Seiki-sha, was given a military order to develop a faithful Leica copy with the first example being delivered in 1942. Aside from Canon, which developed its own unique features and style, and the Nikon, if considering interchangeable lens rangefinder cameras rather than just Leica copies, Leotax and Nicca cameras are generally considered to be the best of the rest. However, perhaps the Minolta 35 introduced by Chiyoda Kōgaku Seikō in 1947 should also be in the mix. It seems to be ignored by some commentators, perhaps because by some definitions it is on the margins of what is considered to be a true Leica copy and perhaps it's not the prettiest or the most petite. Reliability was also an issue. But it was a better mousetrap with hinged back door and single viewfinder/rangefinder window already, like the just released Canon S-II, 7 years before the Leica M3.

The Reise made Chiyoca first appeared circa 1951 as a viewfinder only model, then later with rangefinder and finally with a name change to Chiyotax (later produced as the Alta by a different company). The production volumes were very low but there are some interesting connections linking several of the copy makers (next paragraph). Then followed the Tanack (1952), Melcon (1955) and Honor (1956) cameras, the first two with opening backs, the Honor with removable back. Apart from the backs, they were faithful Leica copies but some of the later models did things differently, e.g. both the Tanack SD and the Melcon II copied the Nikon but used Leica lens mounts and the Honor SD was a copy of the Canon L1 as were the Tanack V3 and VP.

As we shall see, there was a link between the origins of Nicca and the company that became Canon. In a similar way, the designers and founders of Reise (Chiyoca and Chiyotax), Tanaka (Tanack) and Meguro (Melcon) seem to have been early employees of the company that became Nicca. Also, Genji Kumagai, a key player in the establishment of Nicca, left the company in 1948 (according to Camera-wiki.org, according to author Peter Dechert, see the Nicca page, he remained there as President until, he claims, 1959 but that doesn't fit with an interview Genji Kumagai gave in the 1970s) and is later thought to be responsible for the design of the 1956 Honor S1 as well as the earlier Ichicon 35 on which the Honor S1 was based and the related Jeicy. There is a gulf in volume produced between these more recent, really boutique, makers and the Nicca and Leotax cameras.

Of the early Leica copy makers, only the prolific Chiyoda Kōgaku Seikō (Minolta) and Shōwa Kōgaku (Leotax) made other camera types (apart from the Leotax Leica copies, Shōwa Kōgaku made various versions of the Semi Leotax 4.5 x 6 cm folder from 1940 until 1955, the little known Baby Leotax 3 x 4 cm folder during the War years and the very short-lived Gemflex subminiature pseudo TLR released in 1949).

Whilst the Nippon Kōgaku made Nikon rangefinders are not Leica copies per se, the company had a very important role in the category. For the record, the 1948 Nikon I copied the Contax II look and bayonet lens mount but also used the Leica cloth focal plane shutter type and modified Leica style rangefinder. Although the Nikons would eventually prove themselves as highly desirable and successful professional level cameras, Nippon Kōgaku's greatest contribution was its Nikkor lenses, also first used exclusively on the early Canon cameras (pre-LTM and also early LTM) before Canon developed its own Serenar, later renamed Canon, series. In addition to the early Canon lenses and its own S mount (based on the Contax mount) lenses, Nippon Kōgaku made Nikkor Contax mount lenses and starting in 1946 already, LTM lenses for the general market. The 5 cm lenses were also adopted as standard equipment on both the Nicca (most post-War models) and, with one budget spec'd exception, the Melcon models.

The Nikkor lenses debut on the world stage is generally credited to starting with American Life magazine photographer David Douglas Duncan, whilst on assignment in Japan in June 1950, having a casual available light portrait taken by Japanese photographer Jun Miki, a Life stringer, who used a Nikkor 85 mm f/2 on his Leica camera. Duncan was so impressed that he and another Life photographer, Horace Bristol, met with Nippon Kōgaku. The result was that they replaced their personal lenses with Nikkors. When the Korean War started, Duncan used a brace of Leica IIIc cameras also fitted with Nikkors. The higher contrast of the Nikkors yielded noticeably better newsprint output than the comparable Leica lenses. Helped by a feature article in the New York times, this caused a sensation amongst photographers. Whether they were better or not overall, they certainly worked better for the medium. On the other hand, their quality was undeniable and for the majority of people, the Nikkors simply outperformed their German counterparts in terms of price/performance ratio.

By the mid-1950s, the Nikkors signaled the beginning of the end of the world-wide dominance of the German photographic industry and the beginning of the rise of the Japanese. There were other highly regarded Japanese lenses too by now and following the release of the game changing Leica M3 in 1954, to counter that, the changeover was about to accelerate with the new found Japanese enthusiasm for developing the SLR from a niche product to mainstream mainstay of both professionals and photography enthusiasts alike. By the start of the 1960s, most of the Leica copy makers had exited the market, or were about to, the specialised and highly developed Canon 7s remaining until 1968.

In 1959, into the now very difficult interchangeable lens rangefinder market place stepped Yashica with its Nicca based YE and YF models. In 1960, it too departed.

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The Comparison

Inevitably, comparisons are made between the Leica and its imitators. There are two separate issues at play. Firstly, there is the ideological, the whole original/pretender dichotomy, the iconic stature of the original, the cult following, the long list of eminent photographers using one, and equally on the negative side, the perception of a plaything of the wealthy, even back in the 1930s etc. Secondly, there are the actual cameras themselves.

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Icon

I have already mentioned that the Leica invented 35 mm still photography as we know it and it still influences design today. Digital cameras don't have to look like the the body is only there to separate the two film chambers - it's a natural and comfortable way to hold a camera. But it was more than just the camera. Back in the day, you couldn't go to your local store and buy a prepackaged cassette of 36 exposure film so Leitz introduced the reloadable film cassette which inspired Kodak to introduce their 135 format disposable cassettes in 1934. The humble accessory shoe was invented by Oscar Barnack for his 1913 Ur-Leica (“Ur”short for prototype) to mount his removable viewfinder, later rangefinder. Leitz was also at the forefront of offering and developing film loading tools, darkroom tools such as enlargers and developing tanks and slide projectors.

Leitz was also a lens maker and its principal lens designer, Max Berek, was responsible for designing the legendary, and much copied, collapsible Elmar (including its 5 element forebearers) and subsequent pre-War lenses that kept Leica at the forefront of 35 mm photography.

The Leica was a seismic shift in camera thinking and execution and the design brilliant for its purpose. However, to be successful, it had to be well engineered and built and so it was. The Ernst Leitz company had its origins in a mid-19th century business called the “Optisches Institut” (Optical Institute) focusing on microscope manufacture. By the end of the 19th century, Leitz was World renowned for its microscopes. In that context, the Leica was never going to be a launch by a brilliant but struggling upstart, or cheap - it had all the advantages of large pool of designers and engineers and a skilled labour force. The engineering challenges were understood and accommodated. Marketing and sales departments were in place. There was already a New York office. The company had standing, it was establishment.

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The Leica's Place

Although the Leica deserved and achieved widespread success, it turned the approach to photography upside down and was therefore slow to be accepted by many professional photographers used to larger formats and Leica use by them tended to ebb and flow, e.g. after gaining acceptance pre-War, much of WWII reporting reverted to press cameras but Leicas prevailed during the Korean conflict. The early adopters tended to be well heeled amateurs and members of the social set. Whilst Zeiss Ikon released the competing Contax models, the real battle for professional use was still with larger format cameras and then the SLR arrived with its ability to easily mount long focal length lenses to capture close ups of sport and animals in the wild. From that point forward, the Leica became more of a niche product but the film and subsequent digital M series cameras have managed to survive and even prosper. There is still much appeal for photographers but sales have also depended on it being a collectible status symbol.

There are many photographers, both past and present, professional and amateur, who have been absolutely passionate about their Leica and using its many attributes to the full. They couldn't care less about its bling value or the digital era's Hermes, Zagato or other editions. However, most are not average Joes, you still need deep pockets to buy an “ordinary” Leica. Many say something like, “you don't need lots of money, you can buy a 65 year old film camera, something like a IIIf and still experience the wonders of the camera and the Leica lenses”. Yep, but once you add a lens and a good chance of needing a clean, lubricate and adjust (CLA), you're starting to look at a $1,000 entry fee, at least in Australian dollar terms, at a time when you can find a decent usable film camera for $50 or thereabouts. You have to be a real enthusiast, with some spare change.

So whilst the Leica is without question iconic and one of the most important cameras of the 20th century, there is little doubt that it has always had an aura and social status, and hence price, which elevated it above the means of many an average photographer.

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The Japanese Competition

The origins of the Japanese copy makers featured on these pages couldn't be more starkly different. They weren't aiming to compete with Leica. Initially they were envisaged as Leica substitutes in a country that was aiming to be strategically independent. Apart from Chiyoda Kōgaku Seikō (responsible for the post-War Minolta 35), they were mostly start-ups, although the early Canon had access to significant resources and the optical skills of the Japanese Imperial Navy supported Nippon Kōgaku (Nikon). Whilst a Leica could be pulled down, examined and copied, the skills, engineering and production methods had to be learnt on the go. In comparison to Leitz, the facilities and production tools would have been primitive and the scale tiny. Design was by trial and error and as confidence and resources grew, by the 1950s, innovations were being introduced which started to separate the copies from the original.

From humble beginnings, the Japanese cameras developed into good quality photographic tools, fit-for-purpose. They were competing in a tough market with lots of options and the SLR starting to emerge. There was no ability to charge premium Leica-like prices and therefore the quality of engineering and attention to detail couldn't possibly hope to match Leica levels, particularly in the case of the smaller makers like Nicca and Leotax. The niche makers even more so. But to the user, much of that is not visible, nor perhaps even material.

Except for Canon and Nippon Kōgaku with its hybrid Contax/Leica, the Japanese copy makers couldn't afford to, and didn't, offer a wide range of accessories. Neither could they offer the Leitz levels of support and factory service nor even anything more than any other Japanese camera maker of the day.

Even though the Japanese Leica copies look like Leicas, their worlds and market positions are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Well maybe not so much Canon and Nippon Kōgaku but the others were certainly not competitors of Leica. They were everyman's cameras whereas the Leica was the aspiration of both makers and buyers alike.

Part of the Leica legend are its lenses. Not every one has been stellar in ultimate resolution and other metrics but they have all been very good for their time, had a consistent look to their colour and rendering and have been exceptionally well engineered for smooth operating reliability and long life. For a little while, Nikkor lenses got people excited in terms of their resolution and rendering but it didn't take long for Leitz to rise to the challenge. Whilst Nicca used Nikkor lenses, professionals and well heeled amateurs during this period of Japanese ascendency were more interested in using the Nikkors on their Leica bodies than buying a Nicca. Leotax offered lenses from various makers, Tōkyō Kōgaku (Topcon), Konishiroku (Konica), Fuji Photo Film and even Olympus but while most of these seem to be well regarded, compared to Leica, there was limited choice in focal length and the consistency of “look” was certainly absent as was the Leitz attention to engineering.

However, leaving aside lenses and the other natural advantages of Leica, what are the real differences between operating a screw mount Leica body and a 1950's Japanese made copy? By all accounts, not a great deal if you are comparing like with like. Many Leica examples have been well used and need a CLA if they haven't had one in more recent times, many copies have been badly stored for many years and may also need a CLA. In fact copies seem to have fewer problems with their shutter curtain longevity and also their rangefinder prisms. Unfortunately, whilst both the original and copies would benefit from a CLA, the Leica one is often treated as a necessary expense of buying an old Leica whereas the copy is equally often begrudged one, not the least because people buying them don't often have the same wherewithal as those buying the more expensive camera, but sometimes just because the copy costs much less in the first place and a CLA will easily double the purchase price. In the real world, the Leica is much more likely to return the investment in a CLA than its copy.

There have been, and are, photographers that prefer the convenience of the later Canon rangefinders and those that believe some Nicca examples approach Leica quality. The Leotax, particularly prior to the die cast models, is perhaps less kindly considered in that regard but then again, it was probably more innovative than its immediate competitor. On internet forums, people who have good things to say about the copies usually also have experience of Leicas too, or still have both. Those that argue strongly on behalf of the Leica over the Japanese copies are usually doing it from an ideological perspective, not from user experience.

The Leica deserves to be revered and that is one of the reasons that it retains its high value for collectors. For the user, it shouldn't be a question of one or the other, there is no reason why bodies and lenses shouldn't be mixed and matched and appreciated simply for the final image the photographer captures. The experience is very similar, the differences are more nuances. The Japanese copies really did become very good, they were at the forefront of the Japanese revolution that eventually overtook Germany as the home of the leading photographic industry in the world and their history deserves to be told.

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